Why Widebodies Are Used For Some Japanese Domestic Flights

When it comes to travel, you probably, and quite understandably, picture regional jets or turboprop aircraft. In some instances, perhaps the likes of the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 families spring to mind. However, in Japan, it is not unusual to see twin-aisle aircraft operating flights within the country’s borders. But why is this the case?

ANA Boeing 777-300ER
Some of ANA’s 777s have a specific domestic configuration. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Why are widebodies used?

Japan is the world’s 11th-most populous nation, with approximately 125 million inhabitants residing on the 6,852 islands that make up the country. However, it has the third-largest market when it comes to domestic air travel, with only the US and China in front of it.

A key reason for its domestic market being so comparatively strong is the presence of Tokyo. This is home to more than 10% of the country’s population (nearly 14 million residents). Furthermore, the Greater Tokyo Area is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, boasting a staggering 37.4 million inhabitants.

Japan is also home to several more cities with populations of more than a million. These include the likes of Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. All in all, these massive centers of population generate huge domestic passenger flows.

JAL Japan Airlines 787-8
Carriers such as JAL deploy widebodies between the country’s largest cities. Photo: Getty Images

While Japan has an established high-speed rail network, the numbers are such that domestic air travel also experiences huge demand. With such volumes to handle, its airlines deploy widebody aircraft to get everybody to where they need to be on time.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Special configurations

It goes without saying that widebody aircraft offer significant capacity advantages over single-aisle designs. However, Japanese carriers have further increased their capacity by developing widebody seating configurations specifically for domestic use.

Indeed, SeatGuru reports that All Nippon Airways’ (ANA) domestic-configured Boeing 777-300s feature a whopping 514 seats! Of these, the vast majority (493) are in the densely packed 10-abreast (3-4-3) economy section. Meanwhile, its standard 777-300ERs that serve long-haul destinations have between 212 and 264 seats.

ANA Boeing 747-400D Pokemon
When Boeing developed the 747-400D for the Japanese market, it removed the aircraft’s winglets.          Photo: Toshi Aoki via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Japan Airlines‘ (JAL) domestic 777-300s had exactly 500 seats. This configuration is slightly less economy-dominated, and features a 78-seat business class section. Nonetheless, it represented a far denser affair than JAL’s standard 244-seat 777-300ERs.

A little longer ago, even the Boeing 747 was a regular feature in the Japanese domestic market. There was even sufficient demand from JAL and ANA for Boeing to develop a special version, known as the 747-400D, to serve this purpose. This had more seats, and no winglets – these were not effective over short distances, so only added weight.

Developments in recent years

It is also not as if Japanese carriers relegate older widebodies to domestic duties. Indeed, this is a badge that even the carrier’s newer twin-aisle planes wear with pride. After all, these dedicated widebody flights are an essential part of keeping the country moving.

Boeing 777X
Will Boeing produce a special 777X for the Japanese domestic market? Photo: Getty Images

For example, JAL announced in 2019 that it would fly certain examples of the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 domestically. It fitted former of these with a brand-new interior to wow passengers on the Tokyo Haneda – Fukuoka corridor.

This switch saw these modern jetliners replace some of JAL’s domestic Boeing 777s. The downturn caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic accelerated this process, and it announced last October that it would dispose of its remaining domestic 777s.

Then, in April 2021, the carrier used the grounding of certain aircraft due to an incident involving a United Airlines 777 as an opportunity to fully and prematurely retire its remaining domestic triple-sevens. This left the A350 as the backbone of its widebody domestic fleet, although there may be scope for a domestic 777X in years to come.

Have you ever flown on a Japanese domestic flight operated by a widebody aircraft? If so, when, and where did it take you? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!